Found: mainland NZ’s first tuatara nest in hundreds of years

October 31, 2008

New Zealand’s ‘living fossil’ confirmed as nesting on the mainland for the first time in 200 years!
31 October 2008

Tuatara eggs, Karori Sanctuary. Photo by Matt Ward

Conservation staff at Wellington’s world-first Karori Sanctuary have found what is almost certainly the first confirmed tuatara nest on mainland New Zealand in over 200 years. The discovery came during routine maintenance work near the Sanctuary’s unique mammal-proof fence, when staff uncovered the four ping-pong ball sized leathery white eggs.

‘This time last year we found a gravid (egg-carrying) female’ said Sanctuary Conservation Manager Raewyn Empson.

‘We knew of two suspected nests but didn’t want to disturb them to confirm whether or not they contained eggs. The nest in this photo was uncovered by accident, and is the first concrete proof we have that our tuatara are breeding. It suggests that there may be other nests in the Sanctuary we don’t know of.’

The eggs were immediately covered up again to avoid disturbing their incubation. Although only four eggs were unearthed, it is likely that there are more in the nest – an average clutch contains around ten. The eggs would have been laid almost exactly one year ago in a shallow trench dug by the female and then backfilled.

Other than guarding the nest for a few days after laying to prevent other females digging the nest up, that is the end of maternal responsibility. All being well, the tuatara could hatch any time between now and March. The hatchlings will break out of the eggs using a special egg-tooth that will fall off after about two weeks. For the first six months or so the legendary ‘third eye’ for which the tuatara is most famous will be visible as a white patch on the forehead. This too will disappear as the tuatara grows. As with some other reptiles, soil temperature will determine the animals’ gender. Warm soil (over 21 degrees) results in males, and cool soil (under 21 degrees) females.

Tuatara are the only extant members of the Order Sphenodontia and endemic to New Zealand. Every other species in this Order became extinct about 60 million years ago, leading scientists to refer to tuatara as ‘living fossils’.

It is uncertain exactly how long tuatara have been absent from mainland New Zealand but they rare if not extinct by the late 1700s due to egg predation primarily by rats (especially the kiore or Pacific rat). The re-establishment of a population at the rat-free Karori Sanctuary in 2005 was a breakthrough in re-establishing this species in the wild on mainland New Zealand. It has also made the species a lot more visible to the public.

70 animals were transferred to the Sanctuary in 2005 from Takapourewa (Stephens Island) in the Marlborough Sounds and gifted into the Sanctuary’s care by their kaitiaki (guardians) Ngati Koata. Another 130 animals were released in 2007.

The Sanctuary was recently acknowledged as one of Australasia’s top 25 ecological restoration projects by the Australia-based EMR Journal.

Click here for more information on tuatara conservation at Karori Sanctuary


For more information on this media release, contact:

Alan Dicks

Marketing Co-ordinator

Karori Sanctuary

31 Waiapu Road, P O Box 9267

Wellington, New Zealand

Ph: +64 4 920 9205

Fax: +64 4 920 9000


Leave a Reply